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The Superconducting Super Collider: End of the Era of Big Science

The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) was intended to become the world’s largest particle accelerator. It was originally proposed in the late 1970s and was the subject of intense competition over the location of the facility during the late 1980s, when the Reagan Administration proposed to spend between $4 and $6 billion to build it. A site around Waxahachie, Texas, about 30 miles south of Dallas, was ultimately selected in November 1988. Construction proceeded from 1991 through late 1993, when the project was terminated by an October budget vote in the US Congress.


The project was physically about 20% complete when cancelled. Many miles of tunnels had already been excavated, and several support buildings remain standing at the site. Much of the site is now privately owned. The final budget estimate for completion of the project was $8.25 billion - of that, $1.5 billion had been spent by May 1993.


The SSC was a major subject of media coverage and debate starting in 1987, during the competition for the site. 43 sites were proposed in 25 states. Local residents and political leaders at several sites were actually not supportive of the project - state government officials appear to have typically led the process of proposing sites. Concerns over the eminent domain seizure of land appear to have motivated most of the local opposition.


There was a series of congressional hearings on the design and site selection of the SSC in 1987 and 1988 that included dozens of witnesses, including Nobel Prize-winning physicists Stephen Weinberg and Leon Lederman. The hearing before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on May 26, 1993 is regarded as one of the fiercest battles over the SSC. Weinberg and Jerome Friedman, another Nobel Prize-winning physicist, led the defense of the SSC this time. Construction of the SSC was cancelled by Congress in October of that year.


The planning for the SSC kicked off a debate among scientists, which continues today, over the relative value of large- and small-budget science projects. In 1988, the presidents of the National Academies of Science and the Association of American Universities both spoke against ‘big science’ and in favor of distributing funding across a larger number of smaller projects. From NYT coverage:


Both research leaders made it clear that they consider such prosaic matters as the training of young scientists to be more immediately important than big-ticket projects like the proposed $4.4 billion superconducting supercollider

This debate featured prominently in the 1993 Congressional hearing. The fusion energy community is now at the center of this debate due to the enormous budget for ITER, the experimental fusion reactor currently under construction in France. The latest total cost estimate to complete construction of ITER is over $25 billion.


The building that would have housed the SSC Magnet Development Lab, seen in 2008

References

Weinberg, Steven. New York Review of Books. “The Crisis of Big Science.” 2012.

Kevles, Daniel. Caltech Science & Engineering. “Good-bye to the SSC.” Winter 1995.

Appell, David. Scientific American. “The Supercollider That Never Was.” October 2013.

The Bulletin. “25 States Bid for Collider” September 3, 1987.

The Evening News. “Upstate supercollider opponents shocked to make final list” December 31, 1987.

Schenectady Gazette. “Residents Cool to Atom Smasher That State Seeks From Washington” September 30, 1987.

The Michigan Daily. “State residents support collider” November 3, 1987.

Lodi News-Sentinel “State analyzes collider competition” March 25, 1987

The New York Times. “‘89 Reagan budget, a ‘consensus’ plan, goes to Congress” February 19, 1988.

The New York Times. “Budget Offers Insights Into Reagan as A Visionary” February 28, 1988.

The New York Times. “Two Leaders Challenge The 'Big Science' Trend” May 3, 1988.

The New York Times. “Texans Jubilant on Atom Project” November 11, 1988.

The New York Times. “Giant Atom Smasher Encounters Vexing Technical Obstacles” December 13, 1988.

House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Hearing, April 7 through 9, 1987.

House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Hearing, March 22, 1988.

House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Hearing, May 26, 1993.

Reuters. “ITER nuclear fusion project avoids delays as U.S. doubles budget” March 26, 2018.

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